An American Tragedy Chapter 5

As proceeded to his office, accompanied by Alden and the officials in this case, his thought was running on the motive of this heinous crime—the motive. And because of his youthful sexual deprivations, his mind now tended continually to dwell on that. And meditating on the beauty and charm of Roberta, contrasted with her poverty and her strictly moral and religious upbringing, he was convinced that in all likelihood this man or boy, whoever he was, had seduced her and then later, finding himself growing tired of her, had finally chosen this way to get rid of her—this deceitful, alleged marriage trip to the lake. And at once he conceived an enormous personal hate for the man. The wretched rich! The idle rich! The wastrel and evil rich—a scion or representative of whom this young Clyde Griffiths was. If he could but catch him.

At the same time it now suddenly occurred to him that because of the peculiar circumstances attending this case—this girl cohabiting with this man in this way—she might be pregnant. And at once this suspicion was sufficient, not only to make him sexually curious in regard to all the details of the life and courtship that had led to this—but also very anxious to substantiate for himself whether his suspicions were true. Immediately he began to think of a suitable doctor to perform an autopsy—if not here, then in Utica or Albany—also of communicating to Heit his suspicions in the connection, and of having this, as well as the import of the blows upon her face, determined.

But in regard to the bag and its contents, which was the immediate matter before him, he was fortunate in finding one additional bit of evidence of the greatest importance. For, apart from the dresses and hats made by Roberta, her lingerie, a pair of red silk garters purchased at Braunstein’s in Lycurgus and still in their original box, there was the toilet set presented by Clyde to her the Christmas before. And with it the small, plain white card, on which Clyde had written: “For Bert from Clyde—Merry Xmas.” But no family name. And the writing a hurried scrawl, since it had been written at a time when Clyde was most anxious to be elsewhere than with her.

At once it occurred to Mason—how odd that the presence of this toilet set in this bag, together with the card, should not have been known to the slayer. But if it were, and he had not removed the card, could it be possible that this same Clyde was the slayer? Would a man contemplating murder fail to see a card such as this, with his own handwriting on it? What sort of a plotter and killer would that be? Immediately afterward he thought: Supposing the presence of this card could be concealed until the day of the trial and then suddenly produced, assuming the criminal denied any intimacy with the girl, or having given her any toilet set? And for the present he took the card and put it in his pocket, but not before Earl Newcomb, looking at it carefully, had observed: “I’m not positive, Mr. Mason, but that looks to me like the writing on the register up at Big Bittern.” And at once Mason replied: “Well, it won’t take long to establish the fact.”

He then signaled Heit to follow him into an adjoining chamber, where once alone with him, free from the observation and hearing of the others, he began: “Well, Fred, you see it was just as you thought. She did know who she was going with.” (He was referring to his own advice over the telephone from Biltz that Mrs. Alden had provided him with definite information as to the criminal.) “But you couldn’t guess in a thousand years unless I told you.” He leaned over and looked at Heit shrewdly.

“I don’t doubt it, Orville. I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Well, you know of Griffiths & Company, of Lycurgus?”

“Not the collar people?”

“Yes, the collar people.”

“Not the son.” Fred Heit’s eyes opened wider than they had in years. His wide, brown hand grasped the end of his beard.

“No, not the son. A nephew!”

“Nephew! Of Samuel Griffiths? Not truly!” The old, moral-religious, politic-commercial coroner stroked his beard again and stared.

“The fact seems to point that way, Fred, now at least. I’m going down there yet to-night, though, and I hope to know a lot more to-morrow. But this Alden girl—they’re the poorest kind of farm people, you know—worked for Griffiths & Company in Lycurgus and this nephew, Clyde Griffiths, as I understand it, is in charge of the department in which she worked.”

“Tst! Tst! Tst!” interjected the coroner.

“She was home for a month—sick” (he emphasized the word) “just before she went on this trip last Tuesday. And during that time she wrote him at least ten letters, and maybe more. I got that from the rural delivery man. I have his affidavit here.” He tapped his coat. “All addressed to Clyde Griffiths in Lycurgus. I even have his house number. And the name of the family with whom she lived. I telephoned down there from Biltz. I’m going to take the old man with me tonight in case anything comes up that he might know about.”

“Yes, yes, Orville. I understand. I see. But a Griffiths!” And once more he clucked with his tongue.

“But what I want to talk to you about is the inquest,” now went on Mason quickly and sharply. “You know I’ve been thinking that it couldn’t have been just because he didn’t want to marry her that he wanted to kill her. That doesn’t seem reasonable to me,” and he added the majority of the thoughts that had caused him to conclude that Roberta was pregnant. And at once Heit agreed with him.

“Well, then that means an autopsy,” Mason resumed. “As well as medical opinion as to the nature of those wounds. We’ll have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt, Fred, and before that body is taken away from here, whether that girl was killed before she was thrown out of that boat, or just stunned and then thrown out, or the boat upset. That’s very vital to the case, as you know. We’ll never be able to do anything unless we’re positive about those things. But what about the medical men around here? Do you think any of them will be able to do all these things in a shipshape way so that what they say will hold water in court.”

Mason was dubious. Already he was building his case.

“Well, as to that, Orville,” Heit replied slowly, “I can’t say exactly. You’d be a better judge, maybe, than I would. I’ve already asked Dr. Mitchell to step over to-morrow and take a look at her. Also Betts. But if there’s any other doctor you’d rather have—Bavo or Lincoln of Coldwater—how about Bavo?”

“I’d rather have Webster, of Utica,” went on Mason, “or Beemis, or both. Four or five opinions in a case like this won’t be any too many.”

And Heit, sensing the importance of the great responsibility now resting on him, added: “Well, I guess you’re right, Orville. Maybe four or five would be better than one or two. That means, though, that the inquest will have to be postponed for a day or two more, till we get these men here.”

“Quite right! Quite right,” went on Mason, “but that will be a good thing, too, as long as I’m going down to Lycurgus to-night to see what I can find out. You never can tell. I may catch up with him. I hope so, anyhow, or if not that, then I may come upon something that’ll throw some extra light on this. For this is going to be a big thing, Fred. I can see that—the most difficult case that ever came my way, or yours, either,—and we can’t be too careful as to how we move from now on. He’s likely to be rich, you see, and if he is he’ll fight. Besides there’s that family down there to back him up.”

He ran a nervous hand through his shock of hair, then added: “Well, that’s all right too. The next thing to do is to get Beemis and Webster of Utica—better wire them to-night, eh, or call them up. And Sprull of Albany, and then, to keep peace in the family around here, perhaps we’d better have Lincoln and Betts over here. And maybe Bavo.” He permitted himself the faintest shadow of a smile. “In the meantime, I’ll be going along, Fred. Arrange to have them come up Monday or Tuesday, instead of to-morrow. I expect to be back by then and if so I can be with you. If you can, better get ’em up here, Monday—see—the quicker the better—and we’ll see what we know by then.”

He went to a drawer to secure some extra writs. And then into the outer room to explain to Alden the trip that was before him. And to have Burleigh call up his wife, to whom he explained the nature of his work and haste and that he might not be back before Monday.

And all the way down to Utica, which took three hours, as well as a wait of one hour before a train for Lycurgus could be secured, and an additional hour and twenty minutes on that train, which set them down at about seven, Orville Mason was busy extracting from the broken and gloomy Titus, as best he could, excerpts from his own as well as Roberta’s humble past—her generosity, loyalty, virtue, sweetness of heart, and the places and conditions under which previously she had worked, and what she had received, and what she had done with the money—a humble story which he was quite able to appreciate.

Arriving at Lycurgus with Titus by his side, he made his way as quickly as possible to the Lycurgus House, where he took a room for the father in order that he might rest. And after that to the office of the local district attorney, from whom he must obtain authority to proceed, as well as an officer who would execute his will for him here. And then being supplied with a stalwart detective in plain clothes, he proceeded to Clyde’s room in Taylor Street, hoping against hope that he might find him there. But Mrs. Peyton appearing and announcing that Clyde lived there but that at present he was absent (having gone the Tuesday before to visit friends at Twelfth Lake, she believed), he was rather painfully compelled to announce, first, that he was the district attorney of Cataraqui County, and, next, that because of certain suspicious circumstances in connection with the drowning of a girl in Big Bittern, with whom they had reason to believe that Clyde was at the time, they would now be compelled to have access to his room, a statement which so astonished Mrs. Peyton that she fell back, an expression of mixed amazement, horror, and unbelief overspreading her features.

“Not Mr. Clyde Griffiths! Oh, how ridiculous! Why, he’s the nephew of Mr. Samuel Griffiths and very well known here. I’m sure they can tell you all about him at their residence, if you must know. But anything like—oh, impossible!” And she looked at both Mason and the local detective who was already displaying his official badge, as though she doubted both their honesty and authority.

At the same time, the detective, being all too familiar with such circumstances, had already placed himself beyond Mrs. Peyton at the foot of the stairs leading to the floor above. And Mason now drew from his pocket a writ of search, which he had been careful to secure.

“I am sorry, Madam, but I am compelled to ask you to show us his room. This is a search warrant and this officer is here at my direction.” And at once struck by the futility of contending with the law, she now nervously indicated Clyde’s room, feeling still that some insane and most unfair and insulting mistake was being made.

But the two having proceeded to Clyde’s room, they began to look here and there. At once both noted one small and not very strong trunk, locked and standing in one corner, which Mr. Faunce, the detective, immediately began to lift to decide upon its weight and strength, while Mason began to examine each particular thing in the room—the contents of all drawers and boxes, as well as the pockets of all clothes. And in the chiffonier drawers, along with some discarded underwear and shirts and a few old invitations from the Trumbulls, Starks, Griffiths, and Harriets, he now found a memorandum sheet which Clyde had carried home from his desk and on which he had written: “Wednesday, Feb. 20th, dinner at Starks”—and below that, “Friday, 22nd, Trumbulls”—and this handwriting Mason at once compared with that on the card in his pocket, and being convinced by the similarity that he was in the room of the right man, he took the invitations and then looked toward the trunk which the detective was now contemplating.

“What about this, chief? Will you take it away or open it here?”

“I think,” said Mason solemnly, “we’d better open that right here, Faunce. I’ll send for it afterwards, but I want to see what’s in it now.” And at once the detective extracted from his pocket a heavy chisel, while he began looking around for a hammer.

“It isn’t very strong,” he said, “I think I can kick it open if you say so.”

At this point, Mrs. Peyton, most astounded by these developments, and anxious to avoid any such rough procedure, exclaimed: “You can have a hammer if you wish, but why not wait and send for a key man? Why, I never heard of such a thing in all my life.”

However, the detective having secured the hammer and jarred the lock loose, there lay revealed in a small top crate various unimportant odds and ends of Clyde’s wardrobe—socks, collars, ties, a muffler, suspenders, a discarded sweater, a pair of not too good high-top winter shoes, a cigarette holder, a red lacquer ash tray, and a pair of skates. But in addition among these, in the corner in one compact bundle, the final fifteen letters of Roberta, written him from Biltz, together with a small picture of herself given him the year before, as well as another small bundle consisting of all the notes and invitations written him by Sondra up to the time she had departed for Pine Point. The letters written from there Clyde had taken with him—laid next his heart. And, even more incriminating, a third bundle, consisting of eleven letters from his mother, the first two addressed to Harry Tenet, care of general delivery, Chicago—a most suspicious circumstance on the surface—whereas the others of the bundle were addressed to Clyde Griffiths, not only care of the Union League, Chicago, but to Lycurgus.

Without waiting further to see what else the trunk might contain, the district attorney began opening these and reading—first three from Roberta, after which the reason she had gone to Biltz was made perfectly plain—then the three first letters from his mother, on most pathetically commonplace stationery, as he could see, hinting at the folly of the life as well as the nature of the accident that had driven him from Kansas City, and at the same time advising him most solicitously and tenderly as to the proper path for his feet in the future, the general effect of which was to convey to a man of Mason’s repressed temperament and limited social experience the impression that from the very beginning this individual had been of a loose, wayward and errant character.

At the same time, and to his surprise, he now learned that except for what his rich uncle might have done for him here, Clyde was obviously of a poor, as well as highly religious, branch of the Griffiths family, and while ordinarily this might have influenced him in Clyde’s favor a little, still now, in view of the notes of Sondra, as well as the pathetic letters of Roberta and his mother’s reference to some earlier crime in Kansas City, he was convinced that not only was Clyde of such a disposition as could plot such a crime but also one who could execute it in cold blood. That crime in Kansas City. He must wire the district attorney there for particulars.

And with this thought in mind, he now scanned more briefly but none the less sharply and critically the various notes or invitations or love messages from Sondra, all on heavily perfumed and monogrammed stationery, which grew more and more friendly and intimate as the correspondence progressed, until toward the last they invariably began: “Clydie-Mydie,” or “Sweetest Black Eyes,” or “My sweetest boy,” and were signed “Sonda,” or “Your own Sondra.” And some of them dated so recently as May 10th, May 15th, May 26th, or up to the very time at which, as he instantly noted, Roberta’s most doleful letters began to arrive.

It was all so plain, now. One secretly betrayed girl in the background while he had the effrontery to ingratiate himself into the affections of another, this time obviously one of much higher social position here.

Although fascinated and staggered by this interesting development, he at the same time realized that this was no hour in which to sit meditating. Far from it. This trunk must be transferred at once to his hotel. Later he must go forth to find out, if he could, exactly where this individual was, and arrange for his capture. And while he ordered the detective to call up the police department and arrange for the transfer of the trunk to his room at the Lycurgus House, he hurried next to the residence of Samuel Griffiths, only to learn that no member of the family was then in the city. They were all at Greenwood Lake. But a telephone message to that place brought the information that in so far as they knew, this same Clyde Griffiths, their nephew, was at the Cranston lodge on Twelfth Lake, near Sharon, adjoining the Finchley lodge. The name Finchley, together with the town of Sharon, being already identified in Mason’s mind with Clyde, he at once decided that if he were still anywhere in this region, he would be there—at the summer home perhaps of this girl who had written him the various notes and invitations he had seen—this Sondra Finchley. Also had not the captain of the “Cygnus” declared that he had seen the youth who had come down from Three Mile Bay debark there? Eureka! He had him!

And at once, after meditating sharply on the wisdom of his course, he decided to proceed to Sharon and Pine Point himself. But in the meantime being furnished with an accurate description of Clyde, he now furnished this as well as the fact that he was wanted for murder, not only to the district attorney and the chief of police of Lycurgus, but to Newton Slack, the sheriff at Bridgeburg, as well as to Heit and his own assistant, urging all three to proceed at once to Sharon, where he would meet them.

At the same time, speaking as though for Mrs. Peyton, he now called upon the long distance telephone the Cranston lodge at Pine Point, and getting the butler on the wire, inquired whether Mr. Clyde Griffiths chanced to be there. “Yes sir, he is, sir, but he’s not here now, sir. I think he’s on a camping party farther up the lake, sir. Any message, sir?” And in response to further inquiries, he replied that he could not say exactly—a party had gone, presumably, to Bear Lake some thirty miles farther up, but when it would return he could not say—not likely before a day or two. But distinctly this same Clyde was with that party.

And at once Mason recalled the sheriff at Bridgeburg, instructing him to take four or five deputies with him so that the searching party might divide at Sharon and seize this same Clyde wherever he chanced to be. And throw him in jail at Bridgeburg, where he could explain, with all due process of law, the startling circumstances that thus far seemed to unescapably point to him as the murderer of Roberta Alden.